Opinion

In NC, a gentle push for a living wage

Protestor Daivante Erskine of Greensboro, a $7.25/per hour worker for Arby’s stands with other food service industry, home care, airport, academic and other low-wage workers at an April 1, 2015 curbside protest in front of the McDonald’s in downtown Durham.
Protestor Daivante Erskine of Greensboro, a $7.25/per hour worker for Arby’s stands with other food service industry, home care, airport, academic and other low-wage workers at an April 1, 2015 curbside protest in front of the McDonald’s in downtown Durham. The News & Observer

For Susan Romaine of Carrboro, every day is Labor Day.

Romaine is chair of Orange County Living Wage, a group that thinks that people who work 40 hours a week should be able to afford the basic things in life. Her group is encouraging employers to pay a minimum wage of $13.70 an hour (or $12.20 an hour if the employer pays half of the cost of an employee’s health insurance).

There’s no pressure. Employers who pay a living wage get a sign to put up at their business that certifies them as a living wage employer.

“It’s important that it’s voluntary,” she says. “We don’t pass judgment or call for boycotts.”

Orange County Living Wage certified its first employer on July 1, 2015. Now it has 164 employers on the roster. Collectively, those employers have raised their wages by $700,000.

“One employer at a time, it does have an impact,” Romaine says, “and just raising awareness of the living wage is huge.”

There are an estimated two dozen groups nationally pushing for a living wage, including two others in North Carolina — the Durham Living Wage Project and, in Asheville, Just Economics of Western North Carolina.

The locations suggest the living wage campaign is confined to liberal strongholds, but it’s hardly a radical idea. Twenty nine other states, the District of Columbia and many cities have boosted their minimum wage above the federal minimum of $7.25. But in North Carolina, seeking this modest improvement in the life of hourly workers seems to be like asking for the moon.

The state remains tied to the federal minimum wage (which has actually declined by nearly 10 percent given the effects of inflation since Congress last increased the minimum wage in 2009). North Carolina is a right to work state, which all but eliminates unions. And it’s a state in which all local governments need legislative approval for significant new laws, including setting their own minimum wage.

In an environment so hostile to workers, cajoling is all workers’ advocates have left. But it’s a start. And employers can be among the biggest advocates of the benefits of paying more than the minimum.

Gael Chatelain, who sells wood-fired pizza from his two Napoli food trucks, is about to open a brick-and-mortar business in Carrboro offering gelato and coffee. He has eight employees and is adding six more at his new store. He could pay minimum wage, but he’s committed to paying a living wage. Employees start at $11 an hour and make about $15 an hour with pooled tips.

“We were already paying a living wage and it made sense to go ahead and be certified by (Orange County Living Wage),” he says.

Paying more pays off, he says, because then employees aren’t usually forced to take on additional jobs to make ends meet. “If they work two other jobs before they get to us, they don’t have the energy and that makes it hard,” he says.

Tiffany Barber, owner of Hillsborough Pharmacy & Nutrition in Hillsborough, proudly displays a living wage employer sticker on her store’s front door. She has four full-time and five part-time employees. Wages start at $13.50 and she offers health insurance.

“We are in the business of health care and taking care of our community, and I think first and foremost that means taking care of our employees,” Barber says.

Jackson Curtis is a bike mechanic at Back Alley Bikes in Carborro, a certified living wage employer. He makes more than $13.50 an hour and his employer provides a stipend to help him pay for his health insurance. That’s much better compensation than what he received at other bike shops and working at restaurants. He says he makes enough now that “this is the first time I’ve had just one job in a long time.”

And he gets Labor Day off. There may yet be hope for North Carolina workers.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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